I Can’t Brook the Idea of Banning ‘Negro’

According to the reporting of Michael Wolff — of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” fame — Random House passed on publishing an anthology of Norman Mailer’s writing, and among the reasons, Wolff writes, was “a junior staffer’s objection to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay ‘The White Negro.’” Both Random House and the agent representing Mailer’s estate have contested this account. But if it’s true, it would represent another example of the word “Negro,” once quite respectable, becoming the target of overzealous revisionists.

Not the N-word, but “Negro.”

I wrote recently that William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” is “smashing,” one of the most stirring pieces of classical music I know. But I hear from an experienced conductor that several orchestras have turned down his requests to perform or record it with them, out of wariness of the word “Negro” in its title. In 2020, in the Princeton Summer Journal (part of a summer journalism program for high school students), a student wrote an essay titled “White Teachers: Stop Saying ‘Negro.’” I know of two cases in the past two years of white college professors having complaints filed against them by students for using the word “Negro” in class when quoting older texts. Activists in Vermont have been calling for “Negro Brook,” a stream in Vermont’s Townshend State Park, to be renamed.

Never mind that “Negro” was what Black Americans readily and often proudly called ourselves throughout much of the 20th century, until the preference evolved to “Black” during the civil rights era. And never mind that the issue in these instances isn’t Black people being referred to as “Negroes” today — that would be offensive — but utterances or written reproductions of the word when referring to older texts and titles. The new idea seems to be that saying or writing “Negro” is not simply archaic, but a contemptuous insult in all contexts.

If that’s so, then we’re at a point where, presumably, the filmmakers who titled the well-received James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” will have to revise the title. The title’s purpose was to elide the N-word in the Baldwin quote that it was based on. A few years ago, the poet Laurie Sheck, who was teaching at The New School in New York, was the subject of a student complaint that she had used the N-word in reference to Baldwin’s actual statement — in a discussion about the implications of the film’s title. The New School investigated and eventually dropped the case, but one wonders if today some students would consider it inappropriate if she had only used the documentary’s bowdlerized title.

Our moment already includes calls to neglect the difference between use and mention regarding the N-word. Professors have drawn complaints to authorities for using it, even for academic discussions, quoting the movie “8 Mile,” or statements of Klansmen, or in other course-related texts. “Contrarians” like me are not the only Black onlookers who question this elision of a basic distinction. In reference to the latter instance, Randall Kennedy, professor at Harvard Law School, said, “It is profoundly disturbing to see an instructor investigated and disciplined for grappling in class with a term that has had and continues to have a hugely consequential place in American culture.” He added: “The demand to make this term … literally unmentionable is a demand that ought not be honored. Compelled silence or bowdlerization is antithetical to the academic, intellectual, and artistic freedom essential to higher education.”

Opinions will continue to differ about the N-word — does pronunciation that ends in a soft “a” versus a hard “r” make a difference? And so on. But the notion of extending its generally strict proscription to “Negro” seems more calisthenic than progressive.

Among other things, its usage persists in hallowed names such as the United Negro College Fund and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The precursor organization to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (note the outdated “Colored” even there) was the National Negro Committee. Are we going to decide that only Black people, or Black institutions, can say “Negro”? Whenever non-Black people read from or refer to the wide-ranging, crucial and noble historiography of Black America, within which people — Black, white and otherwise — used the word constantly, will they have to euphemize because of some blanket prohibition? “Negro” was, for example, a default expression in the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Must we place it out of bounds any time a non-Black person recites or refers to King’s words?

If we take a slippery-slope perspective, we should be prepared for the notion that white historians shouldn’t even write “Negro.” And are we ready for countless films and novels of the 20th century, in which even civically concerned characters say “Negro,” to be treated as gingerly as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is now because of its usage of the N-word? If this is where we’re headed, even “To Kill a Mockingbird” could be next — “Negro” runs throughout the text.

It would be one thing if there were a clear and present purpose for turning new attention to the word “Negro” in this way. But while the N-word has been and should be banned because it is among the most, if not the most, acrid slurs, “Negro” wasn’t and isn’t. Some apparently think that classifying it as one now is looking ahead, fresh thought, something that should have happened long ago. The high schooler referenced above seemed to associate this new degree of offense over “Negro” with the racial reckoning of 2020, seeing social media as a handy new way to get the word out, “in a time of moral revolution, when Twitter has the ability to hold people accountable for hate speech.” In this instance, some leeway is probably warranted — there’s more than a little youthful hyperbole there — but here we are, nevertheless.

What purpose does it serve to generate this new lexical grievance? I’m not saying we should revert to everyday use of “Negro” — it is indeed out of date. But does Black America need yet another word to take umbrage at and police the usage of? Do we, in Black America, need fellow travelers — sorry, allies — to join us in this new quest, eager to assist in the surveillance out of some misguided sense that this is “doing the work”?

One also wonders how many Black people, beyond a certain anointed cohort, really find the reading aloud of the word “Negro” from an old text offensive. In the Vermont controversy, for instance, the state librarian at the time, Jason Broughton, who is Black, pushed back on the contention that the word “Negro” in itself is racist.

The heated ongoing debate over the use of the N-word is rooted in the word’s past and present as a term of pitiless abuse. To extend this approach to the antiquated but at one time acceptable word “Negro” amounts to a kind of language policing — recreational, sanctimonious or both — that distracts all of us from real work in the real world. To wit: What do you think Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph or Mary McLeod Bethune would have thought about people deeming it social justice to crusade against any instance of the word “Negro” instead of combating actual racism?

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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